Attack on Titan The Final Season
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 14 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
How would you rate episode 15 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
”All the world's might will soon fall upon this land. You have no idea what that means.”
Ever since “Savagery” got rescheduled to premiere alongside “Sole Salvation”, I've been equal parts excited and terrified at the prospect of cramming two episodes' worth of Attack on Titan analysis into a single review. As it turns out, writing about them both in tandem might prove more appropriate than trying to tackle them individually. “Savagery” is all about illustrating the consequences of Eren and Zeke Jeager's dark alliance, while “Sole Salvation” peels back the layers of the past to reveal the bloody road that brought Zeke and his new protégé to where they currently stand. In true Attack on Titan fashion, the root causes of Zeke's villainy are more complicated than one might guess at first glance, even as they lead him to a final solution of horrifying, dreadful simplicity.
I actually want to start with “Sole Salvation”, at the beginning of Zeke's story. We've already seen glimpses of Zeke's life with his parents, Grisha Jeager and Dina Fritz, though only in the fragments that Grisha doled out from his perspective in the journal that Eren found. Back when the show dropped all of those truth bombs about the Eldians and Marley, Zeke was portrayed as a brainwashed Marleyan loyalist. There was virtually no sympathy or regard for Zeke's perspective then; we merely witnessed him ratting out his parents and their involvement in the Eldian Restoration Movement, and thus damning them to the death sentence on Paradis that would end up inciting the war that our heroes have been fighting in since Attack on Titan's very first episode.
It was never going to be as easy as that, and “Sole Salvation” reframes that entire tragedy by affording us a more nuanced look at Zeke's life. What hits home the most is that he really was a sweet, beleaguered boy that was forced to spend his life fighting to live up to his parents' lofty expectations. They were the ones that foisted the label of “sole salvation” on Zeke in the first place, and in their attempts to mold him into the perfect little warrior that would be used as a weapon against the Marleyan forces from within, they broke him. We see in this flashback that Zeke was not a particularly strong or talented child. His attempts to claim a spot in the Warrior Unit left him feeling ashamed and dejected, and Grisha's constant screams and wails made doubly sure that Zeke was fully aware that he wasn't just letting his parents down. He was failing an entire people.
Is it any surprise then, when Zeke adopts Tom Ksaver as his father figure and mentor? Tom is honest with Zeke about the self-defeating stupidity of serving Marley, and actually treats him like a child, instead of a tool to be manipulated. It is the exact opposite of subtle when we learn that Zeke's fixation with baseball isn't just a Beast Titan gimmick, but a holdover from the days where his new Beast Titan Dad would play catch with him and educate him on the true secrets of the Eldians that he learned during his days in the Warrior Unit. Attack on Titan may not give a damn about subtlety, but it sure knows how to play its audience's heartstrings like a harp.
Tom is the one who inadvertently leads Zeke to his master plan of “saving the world”, when he reveals that his research uncovered how the Founding Titan doesn't just have the power to change the Eldians' memories; it can fundamentally alter their physiology, too. This power was originally used to save the people from a deadly disease, but Zeke comes to an altogether more terrible conclusion: What if the Founding Titan made it so that the Eldians could never reproduce, and never pass down the power of the Titans flowing through their veins again? It would save the rest of the world from their awful power, and the Eldians would receive the added mercy of never having to experience the injustice of being born in the first place.
I do not think that AoT is framing Zeke's “Eldian Euthanization Plan” as anything but a monstrous decision, but it is on-brand for the show to try and reconcile how such a decent-seeming kid could eventually become, well, Zeke Jeager. And because the show is so deft in its direction, performances, and writing, we get about as close to “understanding” Zeke's genocidal mindset as we reasonably could. He has internalized Marley's anti-Eldian bigotry so much that, while he recognizes the needless anguish that his fellow Eldians endure, he cannot divorce himself from the notion that their pain is inevitable because it is in some way deserved. When Tom relives the shocking murder-suicide that his Marleyan wife committed against herself and their son when she discovered her husband's Eldian heritage, neither he nor Zeke make any effort to articulate the systemic injustices that could have lead to such a tragedy; instead, Tom just agrees that it would have been better if he, and every other Eldian, were spared the injustice of life to begin with.
It's terrible and preposterous logic, but what this world's endless cycle of hatred and exploitation leads to. There's a lot to break down, too, regarding the allegorical implications of Zeke's plan: Is the framing of Grisha and Dina's denial of Marley's propaganda aligning them with deniers of real-world war crimes. and if so, is the series making any kind of definitive claim about their fates at the hands of Zeke and Marley? Their toxic and desperate treatment of Zeke is certainly not portrayed as anything but negative, but since Zeke and now Eren are on record for refuting their claims of Eldian influence, are we as the audience meant to sympathize with the parents, or the sons? Is Eldian history truly as rife with so many atrocities as Marley dictates, or is the propaganda the meaningless stew of bigoted conspiracy that the Eldian Restorationists claim?
Within the reality of the show's setting, I think the truth is meant to be more complicated than a simple one-or-the-other-answer. That's an iffy direction to take when we're looking at the allegory, but I think it makes sense within AoT's dramatic ethos. I think it is arguing that no person or race is born monstrous, despite the mountains of problematic lore implications that might suggest otherwise (I am using “race” within the context of the show's own lexicon, by the by; believe me, I absolutely acknowledge the razor-thin tightrope we're all walking by playing with the story's literalization of ethnically inherited giant-monster powers). What we see, then, is how, through a lifetime of suffering, abuse, and dehumanization, individual people, and even groups of people, can absolutely become monstrous.
Is it a masterful stroke of deliberate irony, the way that Zeke mistakenly applies this line of thinking to his entire race, and in so doing becomes exactly the kind of monster he thinks the Eldians are, both literally and figuratively? Or is it just sloppy storytelling that is attempting to grapple with topics that require a more sophisticated narrative vocabulary to properly articulate than AoT possesses? I so desperately want to believe that the former is true; I think I do believe it, especially when I consider episodes like "Children of the Forest", which so beautifully repudiate the kind of society or ideology that would have children made into both the victims and the perpetrators of genocide, all in the name of “saving the world”.
Yet, I can understand how people might still not be certain of where the show stands. After all, Zeke was able to twist the story's ostensible hero to his cause, and “Savagery” would have you believe that Eren didn't require much of a push at all for it to happen. His tense confrontation does not go exactly the way I expected it to, either. I had been picturing a parallel to the episode-long powder keg explosion of “Declaration of War”, but what happens instead is, to steal a line from Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short. Eren unloads the lifetime of disdain he has apparently harbored for his closest friends, and any of the other people he sees living life as “enslaved cattle”. He taunts Mikasa with her inherited Ackermann programming, reducing their entire relationship to nothing more than that of an exceptionally eager guard dog barking and biting at the whim of its master. He tells her he hates her. Hearing those words, the camera lingers on Mikasa's eyes as her heart breaks in two.
I don't think there's a single viewer out there that doesn't immediately cheer for Armin when he leaps across the table, breaks out of Mikasa's instinctual body slam, and wallops Eren right in the jaw. Likewise, I can't imagine how any fans could still claim to stan War Criminal Eren when he proceeds to beat the shit out of Armin in response, ridiculing his weakness in between every blow he lands. It's an awful scene, not because of its execution (both of these episodes are wonderfully produced), but because of how much it hurts to see the friendship that was once the bedrock of this entire series fall utterly to pieces.
Is there hope for Eren? It's hard to believe that could be true, but there is a certain reservedness to the way the show has portrayed his actions that I don't even think applies to Zeke. Eren's cruelty is muted, subdued, and inscrutable. You get the faintest notion that there is still something that he isn't telling – not to his friends, not to Zeke, and not to us. It doesn't excuse his actions, but with context comes clarity, and I don't know if we have all of the context, yet. Still, while I suspect there is more yet to be revealed about Eren's betrayal, “Savagery” makes it pretty difficult to believe that we are supposed to see him as anything other than a walking tragedy (not to mention a bit of a bastard).
Zeke, meanwhile, stands more plainly revealed after “Savagery” and “Sole Salvation”. He is a pitiable figure, but his evil feels much more definitive to me, and also much more pathetic. When he finally enacts his plan to transform all of Levi's troops into Titans with his spinal fluid wine (yum?), he foolishly assumes that even Levi isn't so much of a killer that he could cut down his loyal men and women just to get to him. He goes so far as to mock the fates of Levi's fallen comrades, which plays as a much more Flochian brand of shitheel villainy than how Eren has presented himself.
Speaking of Floch, we get a scene later where he brings Hange along to watch him win the hearts of some impressionable military recruits. His methods include ordering the pro-Jeagerists in the group to beat Commandant Shadis within an inch of his life, in order to prove their loyalty. I don't think this scene is painted as anything other than objectively slimy, which goes further to frame Eren and Zeke as the capital-letter Bad Guys™ of Attack on Titan, though each is flavored in their own way. Eren's heel turn is meant to have us feeling like Armin and Mikasa: Angry, hurt, sad, and confused. When Levi chases after Beast Titan Zeke and straight up slices the motherfucker into ribbons again, the bombastic explosion of glorious violence is accompanied by one of the series' rare hip-hop needle drops. Even after being force-fed the serving of empathy that “Sole Salvation” dishes up, it's remarkably easy to revel in Zeke's karmic punishment.
Until, that is, the bound and booby-trapped Zeke ends “Sole Salvation” by intentionally triggering the thunder-spear that Levi tied to his neck, causing an explosion that I am almost certain will result in Levi's death (Zeke, on the other hand, will probably survive, which will only make Levi's presumed murder sting that much more). With only one episode left to go in this season, and no clue of how or when the series is planning on adapting the chapters that will remain, this twist leaves me feeling especially gutted. The sense of unease I am left with has so many familiar questions ringing in my ears. They call to mind, of all things, the tagline from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” I am scared for those poor souls that won't survive, of course, but what of the ones that will? What might they do, and what are they willing to become, in order to see this story through to the end?
What will be left of them, then?
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